The Astrology of Passion
As Alice, a new client, walked into my consulting room, it was immediately clear she was depressed. Her shoulders were hunched, her gaze tentative and erratic, her hair lank, her clothes utilitarian and shapeless. I was surprised. I had been expecting someone rather more confident and serene. Her chart showed an exalted Jupiter exactly conjunct her Cancer ascendant, a comfortable Taurus Moon, and Venus and Mercury atop the midheaven in Pisces. Admittedly the Sun was in the eighth house, which often leads to a desire for intensity of experience that can subvert more shallow forms of happiness, but even so, I would not have expected such a morose individual. I looked at the chart again, and now I saw the key. Pluto was conjunct the nadir, in an exact opposition to Venus. This woman’s passions were actually so strong she didn’t know how to fulfill them. Instead, she had gone in the other direction, coping with her nature by repressing it as much as possible. As we talked it became clear that this was indeed the case. We discussed the nature of her passions in and for life and how her upbringing in a conventional British family had cramped her natural style. We talked about what she was already doing to engage fully with life, and where she was resisting and refusing to meet herself. Later she thanked me, writing that for the first time in her life, she felt someone was seeing her true nature without judgment.
Passion is an important element in chart interpretation. For the professional astrologer, helping clients understand the nature of their own passion is often a key part of reading a chart. People who are connected into their passion, and who know how to satisfy it, are in general healthier and happier than those who don’t connect with life passionately. Enthusiasm for life is an indicator of psychological health and of the absence of depression.
Talking with clients about where their passion lies and how they can live more fully can be deeply transformative. This can make the difference between a life tentatively lived and one which is authentically embraced. When people understand their passions and learn how to develop them, they gain in self-confidence and self-esteem, and become more highly functioning members of society.
Passion also has a shadow side. It can fuel dysfunctional narcissism and sociopathic extremes of behavior, and a life lived only from the perspective of passion can unravel into a mess of hurt and destruction. Understanding passion astrologically also means seeing when a client is vulnerable to being taken over by passion, and where in the chart inhibition and reason balance passion.
In this article I’m going to examine the traditional ways passion is seen in the chart, and then we’re going to go deeper into the meaning of the word passion, how that has changed over the centuries, and what this might suggest about some broader ways to investigate passion through the chart, looking at the interplay between Venus, Mars and Pluto. I also touch briefly on how passion can change over time, looking at how transits and progressions influence our passions.
Changes in ideas about passion
Traditionally Mars was the planet of passion, and this association is still strong today. The way your Mars Sign manifests itself in your chart is the clearest indicator of your passions and how you take action. Your Mars Sign represents action, passion, drive, determination and spirit — imagine it as the adrenaline in your body. Your Mars Sign defines what you desire, how you express that desire and how you satisfy it.
But passion is not all about Mars. Passion, in the way we use the word today, is about more than the motivating drive to act out our will in the world. Passion leads us to our deepest enthusiasms and loves.
The Concise Oxford English Dictionary (eleventh edition) gives us the following definition of passion:
1. strong and barely controllable emotion, an outburst of such emotion.
2. intense sexual love.
3. an intense enthusiasm for something.
4. (the Passion) the suffering and death of Jesus — a musical setting of this.
The root of the word is shown by that last part of the definition. Originally, passion was all about suffering. The root of the word passion is the Latin pati, to suffer (the same root as patience and patient.) In post-classical times the word passio was coined from the past participle of pati, and used to refer specifically to the Passion of Christ. (Also from the Latin stem pass- comes passive, etymologically meaning “capable of suffering”.)
The word passion came into English via Old French. In the Middle Ages, a passional was a book of the suffering of saints and martyrs. According to Webster’s Dictionary, passion was first used in English literature sometime before 1010.
Today’s usage of the word passion, in which strength of feeling has been transferred from pain to sexual attraction, enthusiasm, and sometimes anger, is essentially modern, arising from the sixteenth century onwards. The use of passion in the context of sexual love is first attested in 1588, and the use of passion to mean strong liking and enthusiasm is first seen in 1638. So that’s quite a shift that happened at the beginning of the modern era.
In France the idea of a crime of passion, a disastrous uncontrollable passion–a full-on negative Martian passion–still exists. In Anglo-Saxon culture, the meaning of passion is now almost entirely benign, and the connotation of anger increasingly rarely used. When did you last hear someone say “He fell into a passion” as in “an uncontrollable rage”? It’s no longer used that way.
So the way we see Mars, and the way we view passion, have both changed over the centuries. Mars used to be the lesser malefic, indicative of war, fever and strife. Over time it has become much less of a malefic, and instead we see it as our physical energy, sex drive, and our will to act in the world. Much of the difficulty we used to ascribe to Mars has been transferred to Uranus and Pluto.
And at the same time, passion has become a path to happiness rather than a source of endless suffering.
So why did the meaning of the word passion change? How come we dumped the notion of passion as painful, and instead began to see it more and more as a positive thing? Now, this is of course a huge question, and I can only skim the surface of it in this article. If we imagine that civilization is evolving (in itself a contentious assumption, but I’m not going to go there) perhaps we have been learning how to marry reason with desire, or at any rate, have considered it possible. Certainly that was the avowed aim of the Age of Reason and the following Age of Enlightenment. This move from the medieval to the modern mind began in the seventeenth century, around the time that usage of the word passion changed.
The School of Love by Correggio
Art both makes and reflects culture, and often precedes cultural change by decades. Correggio’s The School of Love (sometimes called The Education of Cupid) dates from 1525, in the late Renaissance, that awakening time in human consciousness between the medieval era and the Age of Reason. The painting dates from just before we first know for sure that passion was being used to describe more than pain and suffering, and was becoming linked to sexual love and to enthusiasm.
You can view the painting here.
As you’ll see, the painting has three figures: Venus, Cupid and Mercury. Mercury teaches Cupid, while Venus, Cupid’s mother, looks on. Here we can see the influence of Mercury on Cupid: passion is mediated by reason, while Venus stands over.
One can interpret the painting to mean that it is through communication and study that we resolve the passions. Thus Mercury in the chart becomes an important indicator of our relationship with passion. Someone with a strong Mars and a weak Mercury may not be able to mediate their passions with rational thought.
Eros/Cupid is one of the oldest of the archetypes. In early Greek mythology, (for example, in Hesiod’s Theogony, eighth century BCE) Eros was one of the three primordial entities, along with Gaia (the Earth) and Tartarus (the underworld) that had existed almost from the beginning of time, and were born either out of nothing or out of Chaos, depending on which version of the myth you read. At this stage Eros was depicted as a beautiful young man, and it wasn’t until much later that he became a young child whose parents were Aphrodite and Ares, the Goddess of Love and the God of War, in Roman language, Venus and Mars.
This is important, because these stories are the founding fabric of our understanding of reality. Here we have the God of Love, the bringer of passion, born either out of original nothingness, (i.e. absolutely crucial to life and as important as the Earth itself), or, born from both Venus and Mars.
In terms of the modern context of passion, the archetypal behaviors associated with Venus might be arguably just as suitable as Mars. There are for example, the experiences of tender passion, of passionate devotion, of steady passion, enchanted passion, and adoring passion.
Since the discovery of Pluto in 1930, many of the traditional attributes of Mars have been reassigned. Pluto is considered to rule the sign of Scorpio (traditionally ruled by Mars), and is the source of revenge, retribution and regeneration. Its influence is also deeply creative and powerful.
So when it comes to passion and astrology, a triad of planets is chiefly involved. Venus, Mars and Pluto all overlap in this context because it’s impossible to draw clear distinctions between aspects of passion, for example, between physical vigor, sexuality, and romantic love. But if we can suspend the need for absolute delineation, it is generally accepted that Venus rules the passions of romantic love and artistic creativity; Mars the passions of sexuality and physical action; and Pluto the generative passion that springs from the deep unconscious, destroying the old and bringing new life.
As well as these three, all the planets have their say: the Sun tells us about the core essence and which passions bring us home; the Moon tells us about our emotional response, its speed and depth; Mercury mediates passion with reason; Jupiter expands our passions and gives them a philosophical basis; Saturn restricts and tames passion; Uranus stimulates the nervous system and allows us to break free of convention; Neptune spiritualizes and idealizes passion. How all of the planets interrelate gives us information about the ease or difficulty with which an individual will express passion, and whether there is sufficient mediating influence to calm destructive or overwhelming passions.
In the individual chart, the sign that Mars occupies tells us something about how we express our passion, about our style of being passionate. The house Mars is in tells us where, in what sphere of life, our passion comes most readily to the fore. It does not necessarily tell us everything about what we are passionate about, about the depth of our passion, or what we will actually do with it.
If you know your own chart, take a minute right now to think about where Mars is, and how you experience it in terms of passion. How well does it describes what it is in life you feel passionate about? How strongly do you convey your passions? Are they worn openly, or are you reticent to really show your passion to others and to the world?
Tony Blair is a good example of someone who is openly passionate about his ideas and ideals and who pours an enormous amount of energy into political and public life. Mars (passion) is conjunct Jupiter (ideals/politics) on the ascendant in Gemini (ideas and communication). So here is a particularly passionate person: Mars is expanded by Jupiter, and both sit in the most expressive area of the chart and influence strongly how he presents himself to the world.
Bill Clinton also has Mars on the ascendant. Like Blair, Clinton is not simply a forceful personality, but also a man whose passions are very clear to him, very strong, and who wants to communicate them and make changes based on them. When he was President, Clinton was renowned for his prodigious energy and for keeping his aides up all night. He has all the usual attributes of Mars: self-centered, very energetic, highly sexed. But in his case it falls in the sign of Libra, so he sustained a long-term marriage against the odds, and his time of leadership was less Martian than Venusian, being an era with relatively low levels of military hostility.
Many other major politicians and world leaders have Mars in the first house including Winston Churchill, Queen Elizabeth II, Indira Ghandi, Al Gore, Henry Kissinger, Ronald Reagan, and Eva Peron.
It’s not surprising that Mars conjunct the ascendant and/or in the first house gives energy and passion. The first house is the natural home of Aries, a fire sign, and the pushiest sign, ruled by Mars. So Mars in the first is a double whammy of passionate drive, fitting well with the drive needed by political leaders.
Venus shows us what and who we love. It shows us something about how we express our passion creatively and how we demonstrate our love. Venus is an indicator of a gentler, more relational version of passion than the lusts of Mars.
As the feminine archetypes become more authoritative in the collective conscious mind, we now look more closely at Venus as an indicator of our passion and how to fulfill it. (We also have to look at the Moon as an indicator of emotional temperament, because this is a powerful factor in how our passions develop, how much access we have to them, and how we will relate to our intimates.)
Venus rules Taurus and Libra, and is most strongly evoked in the second and seventh houses. Here passion arises for connecting with nature, with the beloved, with natural sources of nourishment and communion.
Anita Roddick, the energetic and driven founder of the Body Shop, had a stellium of Mercury, Venus, Mars and the Sun opposing a dynamic Aries Moon. In her words and actions, Roddick’s passionate nature shone forth, with much more zest than a classically debilitated Libra Mars would offer, if Mars was seen as the only indicator of passion. Here the signature of Venus is the overriding key to the chart, and Mars adds energy to the deep Venusian passion for the twin Libran themes of beauty and justice that ran through Roddick’s life.
The strength and placement of Pluto tells us where we experience deep and ultimately regenerative passion. When Pluto is angular (conjunct the first, fourth, seventh or tenth house cusps) or in close aspect to a luminary (Sun or Moon), passions often run very strong. Sometimes the individual is unaware of how powerful they seem to others, because their energy can be overwhelming in its intensity. Behind this intensity is a great passion for something, usually worldly power, relational connection and/or creative expression.
Pluto rules Scorpio, so we should also look at planets in the eighth and at planets in Scorpio. Hillary Clinton is an example of someone with multiple planets in Scorpio who has been driven by a strong passion to change her world, and her Mars is in fiery Leo in the ninth house of politics. Barack Obama has Mars in the eighth, in Virgo trine Saturn in Capricorn, indicating that he is has a passion for practical detail, for fixing things that are broken, and for stabilizing systems.
In terms of the elements, we associate the element of fire with passion, so the fire houses, 1,5 and 9, are indicative of strong passion. Many successful actors have Mars in the fifth, the natural home of Leo, including George Clooney, Mel Gibson, Jeremy Irons, and Jack Nicholson. Venus is more outgoing when she is in a passionate house, and many successful female stars have Venus in the fifth: Oprah Winfrey, Diana Rigg, Melanie Griffith, Yoko Ono. The fifth is also the home of romance, and true to form, Casanova had Mars in the fifth.
Passion over a lifetime
To varying degrees, depending on the fluidity shown in the natal chart, our passions shift over our lifetime, influenced by progressions and transits. You’ll find this to be especially so if the progressed chart has a phase of having a lot of planets in one sign or house.
Transits and progressions to national charts indicate collective passions and how they change over time. If you landed in Britain from outer space you’d be forgiven for thinking that the most important passions of the British were luxury and comfort. Advertising and television programming focus on food, homes, and winning prizes for showing off in public.
How did Britain change from being a country that revered stoicism and reticence into one that craved comfort and prized extraversion? Ignoring for now the interesting matter of psychological reversals, the answer lies in the secondary progressed chart.
Both major UK charts show a Capricorn Sun, which well befits the character and history of the nation. But now, both secondary progressed charts have the Sun in Leo. So everyone wants to be king, and live in a palace.
Notions of passion are historically and culturally fluid, and change over time. As we collectively integrate the feminine elements of the psyche into greater consciousness, so our relationship with passion changes: Venus becomes equal with Mars. Since the discovery of Pluto in 1930 our ideas about passion have become refined, and we can distinguish between different levels of passion and understand that raw energy needs to be cooked with discernment to create truly regenerative experiences. Finally, don’t forget Mercury, because the influence of Mercury in the chart is crucial in mediating passion with reason and allows us to manage our passions so they nourish rather than destroy us.
“Alice”: (data confidential)
Anita Roddick: October 23 1942, Littlehampton, England, no birth time.
Correggio’s “The School of Love” hangs in the National Gallery, London.
About the Author
Lara Owen is recognised internationally for her pioneering work on menstrual awareness and education. She is the author of six books, including the groundbreaking and acclaimed Her Blood Is Gold: Awakening to the Wisdom of Menstruation.